Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens is a remarkable place. Pevsner describes it as "one of the most important sites, not only in Northumberland, but in the whole country" and "an encapsulation of English history." You could also look upon it as an architectural theme park of unparalleled scale and variety: or, alternatively, as a case study in the consequences of one man's obsession with an extreme architectural ideal that generations of his family then had to live with.
There are places in the northern half of the Western Isles, on Lewis & Harris, where you can, at a glance, see the entire vehicle-owning history of a family from the series of increasingly rusting wrecks that share the plot of land on which their home is built. There is a very odd echo of this at Belsay Hall and Castle, where you find the remains of a series of distinct homes occupied by the Middleton family over the centuries since the early 1390s. Another has largely been erased by one of those that followed, and all are now unoccupied and in various states of repair. Meanwhile the family have adopted more practical domestic arrangements elsewhere on the estate, in what you might regard as the most recent dwelling of the series which, for obvious reasons, is not open to the public.
While the estate continues to be owned by the Middleton family, Belsay Hall and Castle were passed into state guardianship in 1980 and are now in the care of English Heritage. Your visit begins in the reception and shop, in part of the stables of Belsay Hall, and from here you progress round the hall and then the castle, and their extensive gardens, in a way that makes geographical sense. It is worth bearing in mind that there is an excellent tearoom near the car park and reception, which makes an ideal place from which to plan your visit, or in which to discuss what you have seen after working up an appetite by walking around the gardens and touring the hall and castle.
It is much easier to understand the relationship between the different elements at Belsay if you first understand the story of the Middleton family over the last seven and a half centuries. What follows is therefore an account of what you see when visiting Belsay set within a chronological framework.
It is arguable that the story actually began some time before the arrival of the family, with the building of a hill fort on the summit of a hill a third of a mile to the west of Belsay Castle, presumably in the Iron Age. The link between the Middletons and the area was first recorded in 1270, when the estate of "Beleshou" was owned by Sir Richard de Middleton, the Lord Chancellor of King Henry III. It is unclear what stood here at that time, perhaps a stone manor house and associated buildings, but Sir Richard de Middleton's residence was deemed sufficiently prestigious to provide accommodation for King Edward I in 1278.
The Middletons fell out of favour during the following century, and after becoming involved in a rebellion against King Edward II had their estates stripped from them. It was not until 1391 that John Middleton regained ownership of Belsay through marriage. He then took steps to secure his hold on the estate by building a tower house, a building that he would recognise as the eastern part of the Belsay Castle you can see and visit today. The tower house probably had a hall building attached to its western side, and would have come complete with a walled courtyard and other ancillary buildings. Having said that, the role of the first Belsay Castle was probably as much to do with status as with pure defence, as it was built in the lee of the hill to the west rather than on its summit. Of this original Belsay Castle, the tower survives in reasonably authentic medieval form, thanks to later restoration.
The union of the crowns of England and Scotland under King James VI/I in 1603 heralded a new era of peace for the previously very troubled borderlands of England and Scotland, or so it must have seemed at a time when a civil war would have been thought inconceivable. In 1614 Thomas Middleton sought to reflect the new reality by building what was in effect a complete Jacobean mansion on the west side of the existing tower house, on the site of the presumed medieval hall building. The result was to turn Belsay Castle from medieval castle into a grand mansion, and one of the first totally undefended domestic buildings of any significance in Northumberland. This appears to have set a trend that was then rapidly followed by others. Defence was out, and comfort and prestige were in. Parts of Thomas Middleton's mansion house remain on view, in the form of the two bays immediately to the west of the tower: in other words as the central portion of today's Belsay Castle.
Thomas Middleton's son was made a baronet in 1662, and in about 1711 the family added a new west wing to the castle. This appears to have been fairly massive in scale as it is said to have acted as a counterbalance to the medieval tower at the east end of the castle. In the latter half of the 1700s the grounds were landscaped in the informal style then in vogue which had been pioneered by the renowned garden designer Capability Brown.
The Sixth Baronet was Sir Charles Middleton, who inherited the estate at the age of 16 and changed his name to Sir Charles Monck the following year as a condition of inheriting his maternal grandfather's estates in Lincolnshire. Sir Charles married his cousin Louisa Cook in 1804, and in September that year the two embarked on a honeymoon which comprised a grand European tour concluding in Greece, where they spent five months in 1805. They eventually returned home in April 1806. Honeymoons are not what they used to be...
Sir Charles Monck was a man with a passion for all things Greek, and the money to indulge his passions. The result was the building, between 1809 and 1817, of a completely new Belsay Hall, on a site several hundred yards to the south-east of the earlier Belsay Castle. Belsay Hall is an amazing building. All the design work appears to have been Sir Charles' own, and the result was an utterly uncompromising statement of his enthusiasm for a particularly pure form of what was becoming known at the time as the Greek Revival movement. This is especially obvious when looking at the exterior of the building, and its inset portico, and in the pillar hall at the heart of the building, where two storeys of columns rise to a largely glass roof.
The slightly odd thing is that although all the detail in Belsay Hall is inspired by ancient Greece, the actual plan of the the interior of the building is very much inspired by ancient Rome, and in particular the idea of a villa in which ranges of rooms surround a central atrium. There is very little in the way of adornment in or on the building beyond the detail of the columns themselves and the balustrades in the atrium, and, perhaps partly because the building is unfurnished, the result can appear very minimalist to modern eyes. For us, the building also has a faint pre-echo of the Brutalist architecture of the 1950s and 1960s, albeit in finely crafted stone rather than concrete.
While the design of the building can make it appear a little aloof, there can be no question about the utterly magnificent quality of the workmanship that went into making it. Sir Charles used local craftsmen wherever possible, and it is said that his close supervision of the building process and his enormous attention to detail raised the skill levels of masons in Northumberland so much that it had a significant effect on later building projects in the county and beyond.
Sir Charles needed stone for Belsay Hall, and the best source was in the ground a short distance to the west of the new hall and the south of the old castle. This happened to be the location of the estate village of Belsay. He relocated the village to a new site on the east side of the estate, and carefully planned the quarrying of the stone so that it left an intricate area of valleys and rockfaces, which could later be used as a garden set out in line with the Picturesque movement's ideals, then growing in popularity. He also replanned the rest of the grounds and gardens, and introduced a kitchen garden with heated walls.
Sir Charles Monck died in 1867, and his grandson Sir Arthur became the seventh baronet, readopting the family name Middleton a little later. Sir Arthur did much to develop the gardens, and opened a second quarry garden near the first. He did little to Belsay Hall beyond changing the use of some of the reception rooms. His impact was rather greater on the older Belsay Castle. In the 1870s Sir Arthur had the Georgian west wing, added from 1711, demolished, and in its place he built a much smaller extension to the Jacobean additions of 1614 in order to tidy up the west end of the castle. Then, from 1897, he began work on reroofing the tower house and restoring it as far as possible to its medieval origins.
Belsay Hall was requisitioned by the army in the second world war. The Middleton family later moved back in, but the hall's sheer scale, combined with problems of damp caused by the system used by Sir Charles to avoid external drainpipes, meant that it was becoming an increasingly uncomfortable place in which to live. The ninth baronet, Sir Stephen Middleton, and his family, moved to a more manageable house on the estate in 1962 which was refurbished for their use. It seems the original plan had been to build a new house onto the existing Belsay Castle, but planning consent was not forthcoming.
From the starting point in the stable block, your tour progresses to the east side (and main entrance) of Belsay Hall. Although this is without question an austere building, some of the main reception rooms are impressive, and the largest, the library, is simply magnificent. The pillar hall is without doubt memorable, but you'd have to stop short of calling it homely. It is possible to tour most of the ground floor of the hall and the slightly spooky cellars, and all but the north range of rooms in the first floor. Empty rooms give little idea of the way the residents would have lived, but they do help display the underlying structure of the building itself.
From the hall you pass along the Magnolia Terrace, through the Winter Garden and round the croquet lawns. Signs then lead you through the amazing East Quarry Garden en route to Belsay Castle. Much of the interior of the later additions to the castle can be explored, while the original tower house is open up to rooftop level. Your route back takes you through the West Quarry Garden, as amazing in its own way as its near neighbour to the east, and the Fern Walk, before leading you back the way you came to the hall, to the stable block, and to the tearoom.